Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the Olympic gods

Few people who were watching the BBC coverage of the 1988 Olympics will forget the evening of Tuesday 27 September. The suave sports presenter, Des Lynam, was given, on air, a bulletin from the Agence France-Presse, an international news agency. He read it with the solemnity of someone broadcasting a declaration of war to the nation: “I’ve just been handed a piece of paper here that, if it’s right, it’ll be the most dramatic story of these Olympics, or perhaps any others.”

The story was that Ben Johnson, who had three days earlier won the 100 m final with a world record time of 9.79 seconds and defeated his nemesis, Carl Lewis, had tested positive for the anabolic steroid, Stanozolol. The image of the pumped hulk, Johnson, crossing the finishing line, his finger pointing to the Olympian gods, was overnight replaced by that of a man destroyed by his own hubris. The Furies, “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath” according to Homer, gathered around Ben Johnson. This athlete had sworn to the Olympian ideals of honesty and fair play while injecting steroids in locker rooms. For this, he would be punished. He would be stripped of every medal, title and world record. He would be cast out into the dark. He would become a thing of shame.

Richard Moore revisits the events of the Seoul Olympic 100m final in his book The Dirtiest Race in History with a forensic, impartial eye. Moore avoids lazy portrayals of Johnson as the panto villain of the piece and Carl Lewis as the handsome prince with wings on his ankles. A simple, moralistic reading of these men would not do justice to the complexity of their stories, characters and bitter rivalry.

Ben Johnson was all muscular aggression, ripping up the blocks on the “B” of the “BANG!” of the starting gun. Carl Lewis, on the other hand, was grace and beauty, a human gazelle. Johnson, the poor Jamaican immigrant, was embraced by the people of Canada as a national hero. In America, the middle-class Lewis was admired rather loved for his athletic ability. He was unable to woo the romantic heart of the American people. Johnson was the stutterer, Lewis the honey tongued one. Johnson, the lothario. Lewis, the suspected homosexual. And what brought these two very different men together was a 100m strip of racing track.

Moore humanises these athletic titans, unpicking their complexities and dissecting the hatred at the heart of their relationship. It is this which makes The Dirtiest Race in History read like a psychological thriller. You know the ending but that doesn't stop this book from being a page-turner. Actually, the ending of Moore's account is where the author finally encounters the elusive Carl Lewis at the opening of a London Nike store. It is a brilliant conclusion to the book.

Moore also successfully brings to life the shady managers and ambitious coaches who will stop at nothing to give their athlete the edge on their competitors. There are the unethical doctors and dubious friends, the megalomaniac sports executives and greedy hangers on. Moore exposes a mafia cesspool of greed, double-dealing and syringes.

But there are also the good guys, such as Don Catlin, “the father of drug-testing in sports” according to the New York Times and Manfred Donike, the German chemist, who patiently found more reliable ways to detect steroid use and create an “endrocine profile,” the science which strives to keep sport “clean”. They prove to be the heroes of the story and those who carried the torch for the nobility of sporting endeavour. It is thanks to men such as these that the London Olympic Games 2012 remained relatively drug free and the world could marvel at the speed, strength and stamina of its participants.

The Dirtiest Race in History, Richard Moore, Bloomsbury 2012

Friday, 19 October 2012

Joey Barton, Morrissey and the teenage me

Back in the day, Eric Cantona was the philosopher king with his gnomic musings on sardines and seagulls. In recent years philosopher footballers have been thin on the ground. Until now that is. There is a new pretender, an unlikely heir to the cod-philosophy throne: a tattooed boy from Birkenhead (actually Huyton, Merseyside) called Joey Barton, presently on loan from Queens Park Rangers to Olympique de Marseille.

Depending on your point of view, Barton is a sweet and tender hooligan who can’t control his fists or a refreshing voice on the football scene who eschews Neanderthal soundbites in favour of speaking his mind and mixing it up with a quotation from Virgil or Nietzsche. His musings range from Gary Lineker to Lucian Freud via Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There’s nothing David Beckham about Joey Barton – nothing photo-shopped, manicured or groomed. Barton is old style, George Orwell working class: the lad from the council estate who got hold of a library card and got clever and lippy. Joey Barton has over 1.6 million Twitter followers hanging on his every unpredictable word.

I’ve taken an interest in Barton because he is interested in The Smiths and their lead singer, Morrissey. Barton’s Twitter biography reads Yes, we may be hidden by rags but we have something they’ll never have... These are lyrics from The Smiths song Hand in Glove, that soaring anthem to working class nobility. The song was all rage and vitality, romanticism and self-loathing. It was the clarion call the doomed youth of Thatcher’s Britain had been waiting for or that was how it felt at the time.

I still remember the first time I heard John Peel play Hand in Glove and how pop music suddenly seemed important – important in the way that Shakespeare and Rembrandt are important. Culturally important. The idea that Culture and pop music might cohabit was a kind of revelation to my teenage mind.

I remember climbing on to the shoulders of a friend as Hand in Glove was played at a gig in The Venue, Leicester Square and having to take the following day off school because I’d lost my voice and my ears were still ringing. I still have the twelve inch, Rough Trade vinyl (and the wonderful B-side Jeane) with the cover photo of some handsome devil mooning at the world. Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds...It was 1983. I was 17. Hand in Glove was a thing of beauty and youthful joy.

From that moment on, I went to every gig The Smiths played in London. I bought every single, every album, learnt every lyric off by heart – I can still spot a Smiths lyric from a hundred miles. I watched A Taste of Honey and read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning because I read in the NME that these were Morrissey’s inspiration. I bought gladioli and hair gel and made compilation tapes of favourite Smiths songs which I took with me to university. It was great to be a Smiths fan in the 1980’s. I am proud to admit that the music of The Smiths became the romantic soundtrack to a chunk of my reckless teenage years.

For me, Hand in Glove has become the equivalent of Marcel Proust’s madeleine. Every time I hear the mouth accordion opening, every time I stumble across words from the song, my involuntary memory ignites and, to paraphrase Proust, the vicissitudes of life become indifferent to me and life’s disasters innocuous. I wonder if Joey Barton enjoys the same experience?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Loneliness and Jumpy

The trouble with young people is that they have no sense of the past. The trouble with old people is that they have no sense of the present. Discuss. The question April de Angelis unpicks in her bitingly funny new play, Jumpy, is whether these positions, if true, can ever be bridged and if so, how and by what.

In a brilliantly nuanced performance, Tamsin Grieg, plays a fifty year old mother called Hilary. Her middle class life is beginning to come apart at the seams: her job with a literacy support group is about to be axed, she’s experiencing panic attacks on the tube and she’s taking comfort in a glass or three of Chardonnay. On top of this, she is married to an emotionally inarticulate husband and has a sullen, teenage daughter, Tilly, who would not be out of place on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

This mid-life crisis comedy plays for big laughs, but laughs that are never cheap. It achieves this with a compassionate awareness of the generational gaps and psychological fissures that stop us relating to each other as we should. This is writing with real emotional truth and psychological accuracy. When Hilary tries to speak to Tilly in an adult manner, she is constantly interrupted by the ping of another text message on her daughter’s mobile. The mother tries to find some way to connect with her daughter only to be trumped by the teenager’s desire to connect with her “friends” by txt lol omg XXxx. In her marriage, Hilary tries to connect with her passionless husband by reading him Great Expectations as a bedtime story. This fails and Hilary then tries to connect with one of her daughter’s buff boyfriends. This also fails because Hilary cannot play the cougar and the toy boy jock has an emotional range that runs from A to B. Hilary wants to talk about feminism and her time at Greenham Common. The jock, if he talks at all, probably wants to talk about Gran Turismo 5 and his latest milf conquest.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton observed that “Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named, not good.” Part of our fallen natures is that we now live with the existential knowledge of loneliness: we’re born alone, we live alone and we die alone. Only love and friendship provide us with those invisible paths, aboriginal songlines, by which we make our way back to Paradise. We retrieve from our ancient, collective memory the remembrance of a time when our relationships were harmonious, when we did connect and love. The ache in our beings is the ache for Paradise. For the believer, this is the ache for God.

The characters in Jumpy live with the poverty of loneliness and the feeling of being unloved. Their sad, fumbling, comic attempts to combat their loneliness are deeply moving because they resonate with what we know to be true about ourselves. We know that loneliness and vulnerability in our beings, but we also know the truth that love and being loved are essential to any understanding of what it is to be a person. This truth does not take away the knowledge of loneliness, but it puts it in its proper place and fills it with meaning.

Jumpy has neither a Pollyanna or pessimistic view of what it means to be human. In the play, the teenage mother who loves her baby instead of aborting it, the wife who returns to the marital bed and finds consolation in the affections of her husband, the teenage daughter who cannot imagine living without her mum, the soft toy that connects us to our more innocent, less cynical selves provide the ways, De Angelis suggests, that we regain some foothold in Paradise. The final message of Jumpy is that love alone has the power to bridge the gaps. In the tragicomedy of life, we can love and be loved. Paradise is not competely lost to us.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Untouchable and the bromance

In cinema terms, we’ve been here before. This is the bromance genre that is usually based around a true story: two men from very different backgrounds are thrown together by circumstances and develop a deep friendship.

In the 2010 Oscar winning, The King's Speech, it was the friendship between the Aussie speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and King George VI (Colin Firth). What brings these men together is George VI's stammer and his attempt to find a cure. It is Lionel Logue’s unconventional methods that helps the King master his disability. George VI finds his voice and in the process, he gains a friend who is prepared to see beyond the royal state and relates to “B-B-B-Bertie”as a human being.

In the 2012 French film, Untouchable (which I would predict has a good chance of winning an Oscar), it is the friendship between an ex-con black immigrant from the benlieues, Driss (Omar Sy), and a cultured Parisian, Philippe (Francois Cluzet). What brings these men together is Philippe’s hang gliding accident which has left him paralysed from the neck down. The paraplegic millionaire has grown weary of live-in carers who either pity him or behave like oily sycophants. The irreverent Driss does neither of these things. Philippe does not find his feet but, thanks to Driss, he regains his love of life and finds love through this friendship and that of an understanding woman.

I’ve written in a previous post about bromance and The King’s Speech, but that film was too earnest for my taste. This was bromance by numbers. Buttoned up King meets eccentric speech therapist and has his tongue loosened. And the moral of the tale is that men can have friendships as deep as the friendships women are perceived to enjoy. That didn’t seem to me to be a great insight (back in 44 BC, Cicero had sussed that fact and wrote about it in his treatise, De Amicitia). The friendship depicted in The King’s Speech felt too staged and theatrical to ring true.

The bromance in Untouchable did ring true and that’s partly because the film is corny, sentimental and playful just like the friendships between men. The directors, Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano, capture these aspects of male friendship perfectly, but they also recognise that the authentic bromance also contains subterranean emotional and spiritual depths that distinguish it from the “friendships” of pub mates or golf course buddies. Along with its broad stroke charm and crowd-pleasing humour, Untouchable has a real intelligence and eye for the matter and form of male friendship. It is this which makes it moving. Untouchable is a bromance with its heart and its head in the right place.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Holy Motors

At the Cannes Film Festival Holy Motors polarised the audience. From one camp, cries of “Sacre...merde!” sounded. They believed that they had seen through the Emperor’s new clothes and that this was a self-indulgent exercise in pretentiousness. From the other camp, there were hollers of excitement and the conviction that they had witnessed a contemporary classic. However, all agreed that this was iconoclastic filmmaking – you may love it, you may hate it, but you will never have seen its like before and once seen, Holy Motors leaves a compelling impression on the viewer.

The friend I went with hated it. By the time we got to the chimps (you have got to stay for “appointment nine”) and the talking limousines (a sly reference to Pixar’s Cars), he was begging for mercy and was found clawing his way to the nearest illuminated EXIT sign.

Holy Motors is a form of cinematic terrorism – a volatile mix of gags, pseudo-philosophy, musical numbers, cinephile film allusions, Kylie Minogue, longeurs and general French nuttiness. The film’s director, Leos Carax, has strapped these ideas to his torso and confronts his audience with detonator in hand. Conventional narrative structures are blown apart and the familiar story-telling building blocks of a beginning, a middle and an end come crashing down around the audience. You just have no idea where Carax is taking you or why. No scene exists in the arena of tidy categories or predictable conclusions. Just when you think you have a handle on something intelligible, the film wrong foots you and slips the bounds of normality. Images are so imaginatively fluid and eccentric that they cannot be processed by trusted mental actions. Everything that we might normally recognise as a film is subverted as we are tipped into an hallucinogenic state which is both recognisably familiar and disturbingly alien. In a word, Holy Motors is bonkers. Good bonkers? Bad bonkers? Judging this kind of movie with such blunt critical notions is a futile enterprise.

The opening scene acts as a philosophical prologue. Carax, playing himself, wakes from sleep and activates a concealed door in the wall of his bedroom that has been wallpapered with a forest background. This first scene lays down the director’s main interests. The film will inhabit that peninsula of the imagination that exists between dream and waking reality, between the known and the secret, the visible and invisible, reason and the absurd. The only thing we are certain of is that we will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Carax has admitted that the forest is a reference to the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.”

Monsieur Oscar, played by Denis Levant, takes to the roads of Paris in his stretch limo as he moves from one appointment to the next, from one parallel life to the next. Like some tormented soul in the Inferno, he is trapped in a daily round of role playing. The back of his limousine doubles as an actor’s dressing room where he transforms himself with latex, wigs and costumes into a series of characters. For one appointment he is an old woman, for the next, a gangster, the next, a deranged, dead-eyed man and so on. The words from T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, “There will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” could be Monsieur Oscar’s mission statement.

These transformations are so complete that Monsieur Oscar’s sense of himself is eroded. With time, it becomes difficult to distinguish the man from the personas he is called to play. The job, the habitual demand of acting out these roles, has taken over the man and consumed his personal identity. When asked why he does it, he replies, “For the beauty of the gesture.”

With a magpie voracity, Holy Motors references everything from Bunuel to Disney’s Tron, Godard to an Ingmar Bergman death bed scene. Carax ticks off film genres with reckless ambition: the balletic eroticism of a motion capture shoot, the gangster film, the psychological drama, etc. The film oscillates wildly from profundity to inanity, from visual lyricism to crassness. This is achieved with such anarchic enthusiasm and uncompromising inventiveness that I totally succumbed to the film’s energy and magic. Holy Motors is fun, infuriating and loopy. 115 minutes of cinema at its enchanting and provocative best.